Archive for the ‘The Rev. Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students’ Category

Sunday
September 18

Making a Way

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 16:1-13

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Greetings to you on this international student Sunday! I am very excited that we are able to return to this tradition of recognizing our international student population this year, for the first time in three years. The start of this school year has been a return to more normal operations – as the Dean has said on multiple occasions you can feel a certain buzz in the air that hasn’t been present for a while. That includes having gatherings together, seeing each other’s faces, and having opportunities to connect with one another. As we come together in worship, we have the opportunity to hear the scriptures together, to learn together, and to refuel ourselves to go out into the world and share God’s love with others. 

That being said, this week’s gospel is a doozy. I mean that with all sincerity. If you feel lost having just heard or read it to yourself, you’re not alone. What is going on in this scripture passage? We get a clear “lesson” from the parable at the end of the reading – “You cannot serve God and wealth.” But what is going on in the rest of this story? It seems less clear than many of the parables we’ve heard before. I am not joking when every commentary I read for this week’s gospel said that this was an especially difficult passage to preach on, mainly because we are trying to read something out of context. We aren’t as familiar with the economic goings-on of the first century. We don’t know if there is deeper meaning in why Jesus tells this parable and what the author of Luke’s gospel intended in adding it to the scriptures. In fact, many commentaries I consulted suggested there were up to seven different approaches you could take in trying to interpret this scripture, but that no one is really sure what the original intention may have been. It’s much easier to speculate as to why this story is present in an academic commentary than it is to bring the text to life in our current context, but we’ll find our way through together. 

So, let’s start with a summary because the text is confusing upon first reading. There is a manager who reports to a rich man. His job is to collect what is owed to the rich man, but he hasn’t been doing it. The rich man effectively fires him because he hasn’t been doing his job, which would appear to be a reasonable justification to fire someone. We don’t know why the manager hasn’t been collecting what is owed to the rich man. The thought of losing his job puts the manager into crisis mode, a bad situation. He realizes that if he really does lose his job, he will be required to either do hard labor (which he claims to be unfit for) or to beg (which he is too proud to do). In this crisis situation, he must find a way out. 

The manager devises a plan – if he goes to the debtors and offers them a lower amount of what they owe, they may be more willing to pay it. Not only that, but they may be grateful to the manager for the reduction he has offered them. If he is to lose his job, these people are possibly the ones whom he will need to rely on for his survival. An expectation of reciprocity, a little “I’ll scratch your back if you will scratch mine,” fuels his deal-making. What originally seemed like a dead-end crisis becomes a win-win-win situation. It turns out, even though the manager has not collected all that is owed to the rich man, the rich man is happy with the way the manager handled the situation. Imagine that! The original reason that the rich man had fired the manager was because he was not bringing in the earnings the rich man though he deserved, and the rich man is still not getting all that he thinks he deserves from the situation. However, the rich man seems to better understand what the manager is doing to secure his job. If the rich man were to go back to the debtors and request the remainder of what he thinks he is owed, the debtors might not be so happy with him. The manager has now flexed his own power in creating a situation where the rich man must accept what he is given or else he will look bad to his debtors. In his response, the rich man praises the manager for being a shrewd business person.  He’s proven some level of trust to the rich man. Conversely, the debtors are happy with the manager and the rich man because they owe less money and will perhaps be more cooperative with them in the future because of this gesture. Win-win-win. 

All’s well that ends well, right? I mean Jesus even seems to suggest to the disciples that they can learn a thing or two from the manager about how to utilize shrewd or prudent behavior to their advantage. It’s not what we would expect Jesus to say, given the myriad of examples of how his parables work. What’s strange about this passage is that it’s not like a typical parable from Jesus. Usually when Jesus is telling a parable, there’s clear exemplars of one position or another. They provide examples of what God’s kingdom looks like, what justice and righteousness on earth could appear to be. But here, it almost seems as though there is no exemplar for behavior. If anything, it gives us a view of what everyday human existence looks like. The manager is making a way in a bad situation. The way he chooses ends up benefiting everyone, but it’s definitely not grounded in ultimate justice or righteousness. If anything, his shrewd behavior seems to be motivated more by self-preservation than a sense of what is right or wrong. He is looking toward his future alone instead of being stuck in the present moment in making a plan for himself. 

It is our instinct to protect ourselves in moments of crisis. When faced with the unexpected, it’s often hard to see past the circumstances of the immediate moment to think clearly. Sometimes all we want is to fix the problem immediately, whatever it is so that the crisis will stop. Most times, it’s not that simple to accomplish. Like the manager in the story who weighs his options if he really has lost his job, occasionally we are led on a somewhat precarious path of making the best out of what we’re experiencing. It is often also true that in these crisis situations, we receive help from the most unexpected places or in unexpected ways. For us, we remember that even in those lowest moments, we are not alone, but that God’s grounding presence abides with us. 

In our existence as human beings on this planet, as social creatures who must make their way through ups and downs in the context of other people’s behaviors, we have complex matrices of negotiation and decision making that we must undertake. Not one of us operates in the extremes of good and bad. Instead, we are constantly negotiating the realities of our lives. Our own needs, our commitments to others, and our faithfulness to God. It’s messy and complicated and a lot harder to live out our values than it is to claim them. Our interactions with others are never 100% neutral. Even though we might not want to think of ourselves as been shrewd in how we deal with others, there are times when the expectation of reciprocity motivates us to act in certain ways. We do favors for others, sometimes selflessly, but sometimes with the knowledge that the favor will be returned. “You owe me” we might say to a friend or a colleague upon assisting them in a crisis situation. Or we feel indebted to others for the favors or kindnesses they’ve shown to us and are more willing to assist them when they need it in the future. In crisis situations, it’s good to know who your friends are. 

Similarly, we might try our best in a situation that’s difficult to negotiate, but feel our efforts weren’t enough to solve the problem. There have been many times in my life when I’ve felt that I could have done so much more in a tricky situation. Upon review with a friend or a loved one, the refrain of “you did the best you could, given the circumstances.” There are many big-picture issues in our world today which might make us contemplate whether we are doing enough to meet the moment. Global issues, like the suffering created by the war in Ukraine, climate change, and participation in exploitative economic practices create anxiety and worry. We may feel like Jeremiah in today’s Hebrew Bible reading, crying out in the grief we feel about our earthly situation. When God is not centered in the community, all hope of establishing the kingdom on earth fails. 

An important thing to remember in this story is that we are talking about two different economies. The economy of earth, the children of this age, and God’s economy, the children of the light. As has been reiterated by so many of the parables Jesus has told during his travels to Jerusalem in Luke’s gospel, the kingdom of God is quickly coming, but it does not operate under the same systems which human beings have created for themselves. What the disciples can learn from the example of the manager is that they do not have to be victims of circumstance. They can change the systems that exist in order to establish new patterns of relationship. Essentially, that is what Jesus is teaching them to do through his ministry. God’s kingdom is all about dismantling the human-created patterns of behavior that cause harm and oppression to establish justice and righteousness. Even if the manager is not setting out to completely overhaul the economic system he is beholden to, in his small way he has altered the relationships that exist within that system. By making friends with the debtors and reducing what is owed, he establishes a relationship of trust and reciprocity with them, not merely a transactional relationship. 

We return to the lesson we are supposed to be learning from this parable, that one cannot worship or serve both God and wealth. This phrase might evoke a sense that Christians are not to be concerned with money; an idealized version of discipleship in which one is not tied to the economic practices of this world. However, for most Christians that’s not possible. We are human beings who exist in the world and we have vocations that require us to operate in the economic systems of our communities. However, as Christians, we should understand that the wealth, power, or privilege we might possess in any given situation are to be met with humility and generosity of spirit in witnessing to the needs of others. For as quickly as wealth or power can come, it can also be lost just as quickly. Our understanding of wealth must rest in a deeper commitment to justice. Rev. Verity A. Jones, in a reflection on this passage from Luke states this: 

Despite all the potential ethical and practical pitfalls and dangers of wealth accumulation, Jesus is suggesting in this reading that it is possible to manage possessions and money in ways that can lead us into life with God. The key, the starting point for knowing how to do this, is to know the endpoint — to know what life with God is like. And if we use possessions to gain that life with God, Jesus may commend us, as he did the dishonest manager in the reading. Being shrewd, in this case, means using what we have for God’s purposes, rather than squandering what we have for no gain at all.1 

Although the manager’s motivations for why he helped lower the amounts owed may not have been purely aligned with the mission statement that Jones puts forth in her assessment of what we are to take from the text, the point is that even small actions like these can help in moving toward what God’s kingdom looks like. 

You probably heard the news story this week about the asylum seekers who unexpectedly landed in Martha’s Vineyard after being sent north by the Governor of Florida. Viewing Martha’s Vineyard as a beacon of wealth, this attempt to either embarrass or prove a point about sanctuary communities for immigrants not really being prepared seemed to backfire. Even though the summer population of the island does tend toward wealthy, in the off-season, the island is populated by a small community used to supporting each other through the winter. The community, gathered around St. Andrew’s Episcopal church where the migrants were housed, provided aid for the mostly Venezuelan group at a moment’s notice. A situation in which no one was prepared for what was to happen – not the immigrants themselves, who had been promised housing, jobs, and help with immigration when they arrived in New England, nor the community who had no advanced knowledge of the immigrants arrival. However, they were able to make the best out of the situation that they could. It wasn’t perfect; the community couldn’t guarantee the asylum that the immigrants were searching for, but they provided for the basic needs of this small group in a moment of confusion and desperation with what they had. It may not have been perfect, but it provided relief and aid in a complex situation. 

Today’s gospel teaches us about the patience required for us to make a way that leads us toward justice in our complex world. When crises arise, we do the best we can with the situation at hand, remembering our faith and acting prudently. Our faith in God provides the only relationship which requires nothing from us, but we cannot live our lives with the expectation that all actions we undertake will be completely selfless. We should feel called to reflect on what we have; what wealth, what power, what influence we can muster in shaping the relationships around us toward God’s purposes. If we can find ways to make our systems more just, so that people and our world are not exploited, we can inch toward the reality that Jesus foretells in God’s kingdom.  

Amen. 

-The Rev. Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

Sunday
July 3

Go on your way

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

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The Summer at Marsh chapel is a slower time of year – our weekly programming takes a hiatus in between semesters. We spend our time focusing on planning for the next academic year and continuing to worship together each Sunday morning. One of the regular opportunities we have for student engagement over the summer is during orientation sessions. BU is a large institution, which means each entering class is several thousand students. In order to accommodate the number of new students and give them and their parents the appropriate amount of information they need before they start their first year, there are several sessions throughout the summer where students meet other first year students, do team building activities, and go to sessions about student accounting, safety, and general college life. Our involvement during orientation is to welcome students and explain what religious life entails at the university. We offer information about the many religious life student groups we have and our times for worship and engagement at Marsh Chapel. This year, we’ve been doing this by setting up a table on the plaza and offering Marsh Chapsticks and candy to students. Honestly, results have always been varied when we do this. Religion isn’t necessarily a flashy draw to young adults. Most of the time people avert their gaze away from us when we make eye contact or say “Hello” but then walk hurriedly past.

If you’ve ever been in a position of engaging the general public to get interested in a cause, your place of work, or even just to take some free promotional items, you know what a challenge it can be. People are wary of strangers approaching them, as they should be in a lot of cases. Trusting someone you’ve never met before is difficult. Making sure they’re not trying to deceive or harm you should be a concern. When you’re on the side of trying to provide that information to people it’s even harder to get them to engage you. You have to be non-threatening. You have to invite them over and say “no problem” or “thanks for your time” if they say no to you. Your job is not to force them to listen to you, but to offer an invitation for engagement which they can take or leave.

If they do take up your offer to talk, you have to be willing to listen to what they say and offer your truth to them in a way that isn’t judgmental or coercive. If it’s information they want, then give them that information. If it’s deeper questions about what you do, try to answer that in a way they can understand. Every once in a while you make a connection – someone who is looking for a place of worship, looking for how to practice their faith now that they're leaving home, or how to go about exploring new or different faiths. Those are the highlights, but more often than not we encounter folks who are sometimes even embarrassed to talk to us because, in their own extremely apologetic words “Sorry, I’m not religious!” The expectation that there’s going to be some sort of judgment from us as to whether someone is religious or not might seem difficult to grasp for those who are involved in our community at Marsh, but in the wider world the judgment for not holding the same beliefs can result in conflict.

As we’ve been exploring Lukan Biblical theology together for the past few weeks, we’ve witnessed Jesus rejected again and again. In the first story, even though Jesus has committed a great act of healing by casting out demons in a man marginalized by society, the community which had rejected the man does not accept Jesus either because they are afraid of the power he possesses. Instead of the man joining the disciples, Jesus tells him to go back to his community and show them what God has done for him. Jesus is rejected but he doesn’t let that stop him from continuing with his ministry. He deploys the man as an apostle, sharing the Good news of God’s kindom with the world.

Last week, at the beginning of our narrative, Jesus sends messengers to a village of Samaritans in order to prepare a place for him to stay. The Samaritans will not allow Jesus to stay as their way of life is so different from the Jewish way of life. In response, John and James want revenge on the Samaritans. How could they not accept Jesus? How could Jesus not be upset? Well, in fact Jesus was upset, but with James and John. They missed the point of what Jesus is trying to do in his ministry, share glimpses of the kingdom of God with those around him. And if people don’t accept it right away, then he moves on to the next village to proclaim his message there. Jesus teaches his disciples about his mission in the world, they follow him, but when left to their own devices, they often miss the mark of what it is they are supposed to be doing.

This week we transition from learning about what discipleship looks like to what it means to be an apostle. Now it is commonplace that people will often use these two terms interchangeably. However, they do mean different things. A disciple is a learner of Jesus. An apostle is one who is sent out by Jesus. The important thing to remember about this is that the two are not independent of each other. Exegetical scholar Brian Stoffregen notes “Discipleship without apostleship leads to stagnation. Apostleship without discipleship leads to burnout. A life-giving faith requires both: the inflow from disciplined learning and the outflow of being sent into the world with a message.” We are called to follow Jesus but we are also called to go out into the world and bring along messages of peace and God’s kindom. Disciples and apostles are two faces on the same coin, bringing the reality of God’s Kindom into the world by living out Christ’s teachings.

In this week’s Gospel, Jesus is ready to send out the seventy in pairs to each town as apostles, making the way for him as he will eventually reach each of these towns. Much like discipleship there will be hardship in being an apostle. They are lambs being sent out amongst wolves – the world around them will be hostile to their message. Not only that, but he tells them to go without any sort of supplies and to rely on the hospitality of strangers to survive in each town. They are at the mercy of those they encounter – they are not to conquer in the name of God, but to be welcomed in and show graciousness to their hosts by sharing God’s peace with them. Their goal is simple, to bring news and action of the Kingdom of God into reality for those they encounter. They announce a message of peace, which sometimes will then rest upon those who receive it and sometimes will not. He also indicates that they will possess the ability to heal others and have demons submit to them. These are powers Jesus himself has but as his representatives, they also possess them.

Despite the fact that they have these cosmic gifts, Jesus warns them about rejection and getting lost in their power. Again, they are to bring a message of peace. If their message is not received, they should shake the dirt off of their shoes and move on to the next town (sound familiar from last week’s reading?) They are also not supposed to get too caught up in the power that God has given them. Their power ultimately lies in heaven, in the faith they have in God, not in their ability to cast out demons or heal people. They’re not to revel in these abilities but instead continue doing the work of God’s Kingdom by bringing the love that God shows to the world through Jesus.

Amy G. Oden, a Church History and Spirituality scholar, succinctly states what Jesus’ instructions are to the seventy:

“Jesus does not instruct them to argue, convince, or threaten if they are not welcomed. He does advise them to signal their moving on by shaking dust off their shoes (verse 11). In this way, they are not weighed down by rejection, or paralyzed with trying to figure out what they did wrong or could have done differently to produce a different outcome. Instead, Jesus invites them to move forward in the confidence of these two proclamations, “Peace to this house!” and “The kingdom of God has come near.”

 

Jesus sends the 70 out into the world and this should also be an invitation to us. First, we don’t know who the 70 are. It doesn’t say if they are a specific gender, because we know that Jesus attracted followers regardless of their gender, which means any person can do this work. Second, 70 is a lot of people! This isn’t some select group who can know and share this good news – it’s everyone! Also, he doesn’t expect them to get it right. We know from Jesus’ interactions with the disciples that they often still don’t understand what God or Jesus is up to, even if they are willing to follow Jesus’ teachings. These apostles are sent out with the simplest message and, if they trust in God, they will be able to share that message with others. The 70 apostles will make mistakes because they are human, and human desires are constantly in battle with what God wills for the world – that is the nature of sin.

The power of the apostles evangelism lies in God. It isn’t their responsibility to change what God offers to fit to the demands of the people. Instead their role is to embody God’s peace and to offer the knowledge that God’s kingdom has come near to the people they encounter. As Christians today, this kind of apostleship seems foreign to us. First of all, many of us in mainline protestant denominations, particularly in new England, cringe at the thought evangelism. Perhaps it’s because our culture has repeatedly told us that religion is something you do not discuss in polite company or perhaps because we are challenged by the ways some of our more evangelical brothers and sisters go about evangelizing. But evangelical, despite the connection with more conservative forms of Christianity in the United States actually means “those with good news.” It’s why Martin Luther preferred to use this term to describe his movement in the early years (before others started calling them “Lutherans”) during the protestant reformation, because it was a return to the good news, the Gospel, rather than the abuses of the Catholic church at the time. Jesus is calling the apostles to be evangelicals. We are also called to this task in sharing our experiences of God with others and listening deeply to their stories and experiences.

Despite this, often times evangelism gets corrupted into coercion. In fact looking at our current national situation, it would appear that this coercive type of Christianity has a grip on our national politics. Jesus doesn’t say to argue with people about being a Christian – he says to offer what God has offered and if it is not accepted, move on. The Gospel speaks for itself. Jesus isn’t a part of the powers that be, it’s why he’s constantly reminding the disciples and now the apostles that they are lambs among wolves. Christianity that comes to serve the interests of individuals is not Christianity, it coopts the message of the Gospel, which is to point toward the kingdom of God rather than the powers of individuals here on earth. When people use God as a means to oppress others, they are not proclaiming the Gospel. When they push their ideology on others without considering how it fits into God’s message of peace and what Jesus has taught about the Kingdom of God, it is no longer evangelism on behalf of God. The idea of forcing beliefs on others is not what Jesus instructs. Jesus is not here to declare revenge on those who reject him, he is in the process of establishing a new creation that radically transforms each and every one of us.

God doesn’t grant us dominion over one another – see Paul’s letter to the Galatians. We are to work together, not create divisions, in order to fulfill the Gospel. We are made new in Christ and in that newness of creation we develop new ways of relating to one another that look nothing like our human-centered hierarchies. Our mission is to invite people into this new creation; to live in the world in a way that is completely different than anything we can imagine. Our vision of a new creation helps others to become a part of something that is beyond our current comprehension.

It begs the question, how will we show up for God in the world in such a way that others feel welcomed to our community. How can we continue the tradition of brining the Kindom of God near to others that they will feel compelled to learn more? We should be good enough  apostles that we create new disciples, receiving the peace of Christ and experiencing the Kindom of God on their own to then share it with others. We do not to coerce but invite. Not oppress but to liberate through the gospel. Not to harm or conquer, but to share love and healing in a reciprocal relationship. Our conception of evangelism need not be forcing people to submit to the will of God, but instead showing through our actions, our invitations, our mere presence as a Christian that we welcome and affirm all people and encourage them to explore their faith without intimidation.

Going back to the beginning of this sermon, tabling for student attention doesn’t get easier as the years go by. But each year, nevertheless, we meet people, few in number, who find a home in Marsh Chapel. Maybe it’s on Sunday morning, in the choir, or during community dinner on Monday evenings. But what I will tell you is that for most of the students who come to our activities for the first time, they say “wow, how come more people don’t know about this?” That is a question that should stick with you. How come more people don’t know about this? And what can we do to help people recognize the peace offered here in ways that will encourage people to learn more? Marsh Chapel is not perfect, none of us are, but we help create places where students can be their authentic selves and connect to something larger than themselves. We might feel ill equipped to do this work, but Jesus shows us that you don’t need to have anything to be able to share his message with others except an attitude of humility and a willingness to engage people where they are. By living out our faith, by showing hospitality and grace to others, we continue Jesus’ commission to “Go on your way.”

 

-The Rev. Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

Sunday
June 26

“…But First,”

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 9:51-62

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Good morning. What a week. Any pastor or preacher will tell you that what you think your sermon for Sunday might look like on Monday or Tuesday can be radically different than what actually develops by Saturday evening. Consider this sermon to be the work of the Holy Spirit in a hurting world. Consider it living into the reality of being a person who must navigate between being living in the world that we have created as human beings and a member of God’s eternal kindom. If we’re being extra specific, consider it me living out my Lutheran identity as both sinner and saint, of this world and the next, of one freed by Christ and bound to serve and love my neighbor because of that freedom.

So first, a check in. How are you? If you just said “good” I bet you were just trying to exchange a pleasantry with me. I once had a therapist who would start every session by asking me “how are you?” to which I would reflexively respond – “good.” We had to work on that. So let me try this again, How are you? Take a second to think about it. The world has been an extra difficult place to be in the past few years, if not the past few weeks and months particularly. If you are a woman, a person of color, a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, a parent, or any combination of these identities you may be finding it especially difficult right now.  How are you doing? When is the last time you checked in with yourself to really truly explore how you’re feeling? When is the last time you had a conversation with God? When is the last time you felt supported, whole, cared for? When is the last time you felt the Holy Spirit guiding you forward, or took time to see if you could sense it’s work? It may be hard to identify right off the bat. But really think about a time recently when you have felt God’s presence close to you, making things clearer or more obvious.

As we continue our exploration of Lukan theology this third Sunday after Pentecost, we find ourselves on the road. We might think that this passage is more appropriate for Lent – Jesus setting his face toward Jerusalem where he will die. But in this season after Pentecost, when we are constantly reminded of the presence of the Holy Spirit at work in the world, it is helpful to journey along with Jesus and the disciples. These summer months we will journey with Jesus toward Jerusalem, meeting people, hearing their stories, and experiencing Jesus’ teachings and love along the way.

When Jesus is rejected by the Samaritans for a place to stay, John and James are upset. In fact, upset might be too timid a word. They want to condemn the Samaritans by having fire rain down upon them from heaven. They are angry. You might relate to them on any number of issues right now when you feel rejected or displeased with something in our society that shakes your core beliefs. John and James are ready to show the Samaritans what they believe God’s power can do – after all Elijah had done this in response to soldiers who had tried to stop his prophetic mission. But Jesus isn’t Elijah. Jesus isn’t bothered by the Samaritans rejection – he has been rejected by his hometown and this rejection by the Samaritans doesn’t appear to be worth his time. His ministry is not one founded on vengeance – it is one focused on restoration and transformation. He continues on his journey. He moves forward. He can only do what he is called to do if he advances to the next village, the next stop along the way, preaching and teaching to each he comes along. Jesus shows us that while sometimes anger and fury are necessary (see Jesus in the temple) that one must also keep in mind what is at the heart of God – a transformational love which will establish a kin-dom far different than anything we experience out of our own creation.

The gospel lesson once again leads us to see how radically different God’s kin-dom is from our reality when the question of discipleship arises. Jesus is very harsh with those who would be disciples. He reminds them and us how difficult being a disciple really is – no place to call home, no adherence to cultural norms, no time to even say goodbye to your family. Jesus commands a radical shift in understanding what a good life, what a life rooted in God, really is. Jesus’s ministry and the disciples who follow him must be focused on the future and the important task of proclaiming God’s kingdom to the world. Jesus and the disciples are single-minded in the task they have set before them – they cannot be distracted by the worldly demands of what is good or comfortable.

God’s good can be very different from the “good” our social conventions tell us to seek out. Our human good is often rooted in sinful power structures, particularly in using or stratifying people by economic worth, race, or gender. These power structures serve to focus us on human wants and needs over the call of God’s love and justice. It is easy for us to reject those things we consider to be evil in order to be followers of Christ, but sometimes what is more difficult is to reject the things we are told to see as good that keep us from our call to love God and neighbor. We have to be willing to be uncomfortable and even reject some of the things that help us have what our society deems to be the “good life” if we are to truly follow Christ’s command to love.

Lutheran theologian and ethicist Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, author of Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation, puts into perspective our drive toward sin and the redemptive quality of Christ’s love in the paradox that is the life of a Christian:

“We are alienated from God and as a consequence of this alienation (sin), we will betray (to some extent) the ways and will of God. Instead of living according to God’s commandments to love God, self, and others, we will live as “selves curved in on self,” captive to self-interest. The profound paradox is that simultaneously, we are saved by God. Salvation frees us from living as “selves curved in on self,” and saves us for loving God, self, others, and this good Earth. God renders us living abodes of God’s justice-making love. This paradox reverberates with power for the good. It means that regardless of our implication in cruel forms of oppression, human beings also are capable of and called to lives of justice-making love.[1]

Just because there is sin, just because there is harm and hurt and destruction does not mean that we are not capable of seeking the ultimate good.

“If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.” These are good words to hear this week. It reminds us that as followers of Christ we are not only called to live in line with the Spirit’s ways but that we are to be dynamically involved with the Spirit, moving through life guided by it. Like Jesus who continues to move forward in his ministry even when he encounters obstacles, Paul urges the Galatians to continue their spiritual journey guided by the Holy Spirit. Paul’s letter to the Galatians has some very important lessons that can be interpreted for the modern-day church. Paul highlights the tendencies of human nature which continue to repeat themselves generation after generation. Last week, the section of Paul’s letter to the Galatians addressed the false ways human beings try to create hierarchical structures of who is considered to be more or less Christian, or in or out from society, who has power and who is powerless according to their own standards in the name of God. If that doesn’t sound at all familiar, you haven’t been paying attention recently. Our human existence is plagued by the drive toward sin, toward that which directs us away from or interferes with our relationship with God. This week, Paul reminds the Galatians that their commandment from Christ is to love one another, which is obviously something easier said than done.

How will we love our neighbor as ourselves? How? How are we doing it right now? If you are a conscious breathing human adult living in the world today, you can see the many, many, many ways in which we are failing at this. We turn a blind eye to the harm created by exploitative systems. We blame poor people for not wanting to work when the wages offered are not enough to survive on. We witness an unjustified war, rooted in nationalism and economic gain. We fail to give equitable access to healthcare to all people. We helplessly look on as mass shooting after mass shooting after mass shooting takes place and then are deflated when laws that have been proven to lower gun violence are declared unconstitutional. We are left stunned when bodily autonomy is taken away even when we knew it was coming. There are so many hurting and upset people in this world right now. As we continually experience trauma after trauma, we might begin to feel numb about knowing what to do next. We grieve our present reality and look to the past for guidance on where we’ve been and how we got to this very confusing and challenging place. However, we cannot get stuck on focusing on things that have already happened. We have to face toward the future. Jesus knows that his future lies in Jerusalem. He sets his face toward it. He will spend the next ten chapters of Luke on that trek, teaching and healing people along the way. The work of God’s kindom calls us to continue to move forward in an ongoing relationship with the Holy Spirit and our community in order to seek God’s love and justice.

To move forward from this place of despair, our understanding of God must be relational. We cannot hope to have a glimpse of the Kindom here on earth if we refuse to be in relationship with one another. We need to be reminded of the ways that the Spirit is present in our lives and look for its fruits as a means of identifying that which brings us into fuller relationship with one another and with God. Our discipleship is a journey, but it is also an opportunity to learn and care for one another. Listen to the fruits of the spirit again: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. None of these mean anything outside of being in relationship with God and with one another. When one of us is harmed, all of us are harmed. When we have in-fighting about who is right and wrong we run the risk of destroying all. Think back to last week’s reading in Galatians – Paul emphasizes that all of the divisions between people, particularly the ones we place on each other, dissolve in the body of Christ. If we succumb to in-fighting over these human made structures, we weaken our expression of God’s love and ultimately destroy ourselves.

One of my favorite parts of my Lutheran heritage is Luther’s 1520 treatise, The Freedom of a Christian. Luther builds upon the concept that Paul points out to the Galatians in his epistle – you are freed by Christ by the grace of God but with that freedom you are to care for and be in service to your neighbor. The freedom gained through God’s redeeming love in the death and resurrection of Jesus binds us to one another. We are to be in service to, to look out for, to love each other in the way that God loves us. That is what we are here to do. That is what our baptismal vows call us toward. We have to be able to look our neighbor in the eye and treat them with the dignity they deserve in all of their complexities as human beings.

God seeks out the uncomfortable. In Christ, we know that God is intimately familiar with the suffering we endure. God also knows what it means to be in opposition to the human power structures that divert us from God’s will and how costly following Christ can be in those circumstances. God de-stablizes the status quo. God causes us to question those in power about what their motives really are – to use their power for freedom, justice, righteousness, or to hold on to power for power’s sake – to control, to harm, to be indifferent about the suffering of others. If the world does not care about seeking justice for all, we must commit ourselves to live out the body of Christ in the world. In the words of Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, being the body of Christ in the world is a “form of God’s overflowing love embodied in community that acts responsibly in the world on behalf of abundant life for all, especially on behalf of those who are persecuted or marginalized.”[2]

We must continue forward following the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Our sightline is set on God’s Kindom, a place where joyful abundance, justice, and peace is set forth for all people. We may share in John and James’ fury at being denied what we believe to be the right course of action, but we follow Christ, through the challenges, through the discomforts, through the hardships clinging to one another as siblings sharing in God’s grace and unconditional love.

In closing, I would like to share a prayer from the Rev. Micah Bucey for times such as these. Rev. Bucey is a minister at Judson Memorial Church in New York City and is author of The Book of Tiny Prayer (you can also find him on Instagram @revmicahb). The prayer is titled “A Tiny Prayer (for those who need to fume today)”:

Let us pray:

May you give yourself the permission you require, knowing that the ground feels shaky, the air feels thick, the future feels scarily uncertain, and then may you reconstitute this anger into action, connecting with those who are also transforming their rage into a radical recommitment to love, trusting that this sparking electric current presently flowing through your body is simply seeking redirection in order to refuel your continued participation in our hopeful revolution.

Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

 

[1] Moe-Lobeda, Cynthia D.. Resisting Structural Evil : Love As Ecological-Economic Vocation, 1517 Media, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/bu/detail.action?docID=3380907.

Created from bu on 2022-06-25 13:04:39.

[2] Ibid.

Sunday
May 15

‘This I Believe’ Meditations

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

John 13:31-35

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Text of the reflections is unavailable at this time.

Sunday
April 24

Faithful Resilience

By Marsh Chapel

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John 20:19-31

Click here to hear just the sermon

 

Recently, my husband and I have started a new Saturday morning ritual. We get up reasonably early for a Saturday morning and head out to pick up a coffee and take a walk in our neighboring areas. Sometimes we wander the paths that track alongside the Charles River, noticing the birds that make their ways to the shoreline, weaving in and out of wooded areas that intersect with roads and town squares. Sometimes we explore Mount Auburn Cemetery, a gorgeous mix of cultivated trees, flowers, ponds, and wildlife in the midst of a functioning burial ground – a national historic landmark in its own right that draws birders, historians, and scientists doing urban ecological research to its grounds. Most recently, we found our way to Fresh Pond, aided by the trails the local Departments of Conservation & Recreation have built to provide car-free paths through Watertown and Cambridge. Each of these walks takes us about an hour and a half to up to two hours. We make our way, noticing the world around us, guessing at tree and bird species (Mt Auburn lets us cheat by having placards on all of their trees), greeting walkers/runners/dog owners as we come across them, and allowing ourselves to feel closer to something bigger than ourselves.

We took up this practice during the early days pandemic. You probably remember that when we were told to stay home and away from others, going outdoors for a walk was one of the few things public officials encouraged. Get outside. Get fresh air. Get some exercise. Being cooped up indoors for so long isn’t good for your mental health. It was one of the “safe” options when we knew little about the coronavirus and fear of getting sick or getting others sick was our dominant thought. In a time of high anxiety, the nature outside our front door helped us feel, if you will excuse the pun, more grounded.

Walking these areas also helped us grow in appreciation for where we live. Despite our urban landscape, we can easily access these greenspaces. We are lucky and recognize that not everyone has such access. It also made us realize nature’s healing properties. And it’s not just us thinking it helped our moods. Studies have shown that connections with nature can help improve individuals’ mental and physical health, decreasing anxiety and depression, easing muscle tension and lowering blood pressure and even decreasing the duration of hospital stays.[1] We don’t put in headphones on these walks so we can hear the birds singing, the lapping of water at the edges of the rivers and ponds. We occasionally take our walks on brutally cold or rainy mornings (usually more my husband’s idea than mine) but we get to see animals we might not otherwise encounter and appreciate the cycles of the seasons and weather patterns in nature revealing itself to us. These walks helped us get through the long stretches of us only seeing each other during lockdown. It broke up our days that seemed to run together. And now, it’s something that we can do to connect with each other after a busy week of work.

Nature has taught us resilience. We have seen it take over abandoned areas, with trees and grasses pushing through old pavement. We are reminded of the renewal experienced each year as new buds and blooms inevitably begin to grow during the grayest days of March and April. Nature also reveals the complexity of the world around us. The water levels of the Charles remind us of whether we’ve been having too much or too little rain. The presence of certain wildlife, or lack thereof, has made us question how human interference has or has not created problems. Mostly, it gives us hope and a sense of being connected to the Divine through the creation. Instead of viewing the world through our computer screens, which is something I will admit has taken up too much of my time lately, getting out into our local environment helps us to feel more complete. It makes us more aware. It refuels us. It is healing in a world that increasingly feels more and more out of control.

In today’s Gospel we encounter the disciples in a locked room on the first day of the week. They are fearful. Their world has been turned upside down by the recent events they’ve experienced. They’ve lost their leader. The state executed Jesus and now, who knows, they might be next because they are his followers. Hiding appears to be the best option because there is so much uncertainty around them. Despite the fact that Jesus has told the disciples that his time will come and that they will have to continue his ministry without him, they are still terrified. They were told to believe and continue on and yet they find it hard to in their present circumstances. Fear overtakes their faith, it freezes them and causes them to want to remain hidden from the world. They keep themselves hidden because they cannot move on. They are directionless and have only each other to cling to in the immediate aftermath of Jesus’ death.

Jesus then appears through the locked door meant to keep the outside world “out there” and the disciples safe “in here”. He wishes peace upon them and breathes the Holy Spirit on them. They recognize him through his repetition of peace, the words he shares with them. The whole thing is completely beyond comprehension for the disciples. No one expected a week after his death, that Jesus would appear, least of all the disciples who didn’t seem to believe Mary Magdelene’s testimony from the day of his resurrection. Everything is once again upended by his appearance, even if for a short time. However, Jesus’ words calm them and they recognize their savior.

Jesus’ presence fosters the disciples’ resilience. While Jesus had intended for his words before his death to provide a reminder to the disciples of how they were to proceed after he was no longer with them, they needed an extra boost of his presence and the work of the Holy Spirit to motivate them to proclaim the good news. They find Thomas, who wasn’t there when Jesus appeared and share the good news that Mary and Jesus have shared with them. Thomas, in turn, doesn’t believe them. Thomas has always been a questioner, a seeker. You may remember that in chapter 14, after Jesus telling the disciples that he is preparing a place for them with God, Thomas states that they do not know where he is going and therefore they cannot know the way. Jesus replies that he is the way, the truth, and the life. Evidently all of the disciples forgot this exchange. Thomas too comes to recognize Jesus’ power in his second appearance to the disciples. It is not that Thomas doubts, but that he wants to experience what the other disciples saw the week prior. The author of the Gospel instills in us as readers that we too should trust in Jesus’ resurrection not because we will be able to physically witness it as the disciples did but because we have faith in God. Thomas questions because he wants to be sure in his faith in God, securing and owning his faith. Thomas’ questioning is a form of resilience because it helps him to grow into his faith, finally confessing “My Lord and My God” when he encounters Jesus.

The resurrection and these subsequent appearances by Jesus to the disciples (including Mary) remind us of the boldness of our faith. Our Christian tradition is rooted in making a way out of no way. The impossible becomes possible. Refueled and reoriented by Jesus’ appearance and his breathing of the Holy Spirit on them, the disciples are now ready to go out into the world and proclaim the good news of Jesus’ ministry to others. Much like the second Genesis creation narrative, in which God breathes the breath of life into human beings, Jesus’ breath offers new life of ministry and resiliency to the disciples.

In the past few years, it may have felt as though we are in need of the Holy Spirit’s presence to build our resilience. Grappling with the on-going pandemic and anxieties around social behavior (should I continue to wear my mask? Is it safe to travel? Should I feel guilty about returning to some normalcy?), a war erupting in Eastern Europe, continued inflation, and to top it off, the looming challenges we are facing due to climate change, we may want to refuse to accept reality. It is easier to pretend these things are not affecting us because the grief and discomfort of facing these global challenges are just too much for us to wrap our heads around. We may want to lock ourselves away and try to hide out of fear of what the future might hold.

Looking at this time in our collective history, one might think that it would cause us to come together and be more willing to support one another. To anticipate global phenomena, such as a pandemic, and find ways to prevent or lessen their impact. This hasn’t been the case. For many, climate change and related issues of pollution and social and economic harm have dropped in people’s awareness. Rising gas prices have not caused our nation to seek out alternatives, but rather to double down on our dependence on fossil fuel consumption. War in Ukraine is motivated not just by ideological claims of Russian ethnic identity (as claimed by the Russian government) but also by the vast resources found within Ukrainian soil. Ukraine has the second largest natural gas reserves in Europe, as well as the sixth largest coal reserves. These fossil fuel deposits are generally found in the eastern part of Ukraine, which just so happens to be the area that the Russian government is interested in annexing back into Russian territory. Possessing energy means possessing power in our current global economy.[2]

How can we hope to be resilient in times when things seem so bleak? When some of us can’t even bare to look at the news because it only seems to be going from bad to worse? When we’re already experiencing the effects of global climate change – droughts, wildfires, flooding, pandemics – and it feels like it’s too late? When we find ourselves trapped in a metaphorical locked room afraid to face what is on the other side of the door?

Resiliency is thought to come from a variety of sources. Building connections, fostering wellness, finding purpose, and seeking help when needed, all help us through difficult times.[3] We see some of these in the disciples through their gathering and relying on one another in the absence of Jesus, and then their motivation to go out into the world to spread the word of his life and ministry to others. Coming together offers us the opportunity to support one another through challenging times, to have diverse perspectives and ways of approaching problems, to work together to make a way out of no way. Coming together with the Earth helps us to better understand its systems and the ways our actions impact it. The Holy Spirit binds us together to make care of the Earth a priority. Jesus’ ministry provides an example of seeking justice and healing for our neighbors, and our faith in his ministry bolsters us to face the challenges of today.

This past Friday was Earth Day. Earth Day generally encourages us to appreciate the Earth for how it supports us as well as cause us to examine the ways we interact with it and its many systems. A celebration of our shared commitment to the Earth while also bringing attention to the harmful and exploitative injustices tied to our use and misuse of Earth’s resources. COVID brought into sharp focus the ways in which our global community is deeply connected. Not only has the specter of the virus caused us to change our lives in drastic ways, it made social and economic disparities even more apparent. A pandemic itself can be the result of loss of biodiversity, harming the Earth’s own resiliency in preventing the ways in which natural systems can heal themselves. Earth’s health affects our own health and continuing to disrupt those systems will only bring harm to ourselves. Failure to see ourselves as a part of rather than separate from “nature” will diminish our ability to aid in its resilience.

If we do not learn some climate resiliency now and attempt to dampen the effects of climate change, we will find ourselves forced to adapt. As people of God, of the resurrected Christ, we are a resilient people. We are a people who through faith, have hope for the world. We also acknowledge the ways we fall short and the responsibility we have to care for one another. As the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, stated on 2021’s Earth Day “it is central to our holy calling to treasure the earth and care for it as our home, fully integrating creation care into our love of God, neighbor and all in the environment.”[4] Despite how deeply distraught we might feel in light of climate change or other global challenges, we have the ability to find resilience in a world that will inevitably change and have more challenges in coming years. The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, head of the Orthodox Christian Churches, also known as the Green Patriarch offers these words of hope and resilience:

"It is never too late. God’s world has incredible healing powers; and human choices can change the tide in global warming. Within a single generation, we could steer earth toward our children’s future. With God’s blessing and help, that generation can begin now. For the first time in the history of our world, we recognize that our decisions and choices directly impact the environment. It is up to us to shape our future; it is up to us to choose our destiny. Breaking the vicious circle of ecological degradation is a choice with which we are uniquely endowed, at this crucial moment in the history of our planet."[5]

My call to you this Earth Day Sunday is to find ways you can become resilient and create change in this world. Acknowledge the ways you have fallen short in your care and concern for the Earth, repent of those sins, and work to remediate them. Find something you are passionate about and start there. Want to feel closer to nature or God? Schedule time to spend outside and see how it makes you more aware of your surroundings. Feel God’s presence in creation and the intricate ways we are connected to our environment. Find ways to connect with others around environmental issues and ways you feel motivated to address them. Are you passionate about economic or racial justice issues? Find out how these are connected to environmental justice and how they influence each other. Speak truth to power by holding government officials and corporations responsible for failing to protect and actively harming the Earth. Help communities of color and low-income communities gain access to climate resiliency planning so that they don’t have to bear the brunt of climate change effects.

There are ways we can build our resilience through our faith and help to envision a future full of hope adapting to the changes in our Earthly home. Even though we may be fearful about the future, we are not helpless. We are at a pivotal point in Earth’s history in which we can effect change. We trust in the risen Lord who forgives our sins and promises the establishment of a new creation, one in which we can aid in bringing about, full of justice and righteousness.  Amen.

[1] Miyazaki, Yoshifumi, et al. “A Review of the Benefits of Nature Experiences: More than Meets the Eye,” Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2017 Aug; 14(8): 864. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5580568/

[2] David Knight Legg “Putin’s Ukraine Invasion Is About Energy and Natural Resources,” The Wall Street Journal, April 5, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/putins-ukraine-invasion-is-an-energy-heist-natural-gas-russia-ukraine-invasion-oil-nato-conflict-11649186174

[3] David Palmiter, et al. “Building your resilience,” American Psychological Association: Psychology Topics, Updated February 1, 2020. https://www.apa.org/topics/resilience

[4] “Earth Day statement from Bishop Eaton,” ELCA, 4/13/2021 https://www.elca.org/News-and-Events/8097?_ga=2.50482976.8403975.1650755927-1272713125.1631808351

[5] Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church Ecumenical Patriarchate Press Office, “Environmental Justice and Peace: Quotes from His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew,” https://www.orthodoxcouncil.org/-the-green-patriarch-

 

-The Rev. Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

Sunday
October 31

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

John 8:31–36

Click here to hear just the sermon

The Rev. Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain:

Good morning! Can I say what an absolute thrill it is to get to share God’s word with you today? I’m always excited to preach when the Dean offers, but to get to share those duties with my friend and colleague, Scott, discussing Luther and Bach on Reformation Sunday which also happens to be Reformation Day? It’s like the Lutheran Superbowl! I even wore my team’s colors – Red - (and insignia – the Luther Rose that appears right here on the bottom of my stole)! While I know today is another holiday observed in the US, *ahem* Halloween, October 31st will always be Reformation Day for me, first and foremost.

All kidding aside, Reformation Day is a significant marker of changes within the church and a reorientation to the personal, unmediated relationship people have with God. It is where many of our familiar forms of Protestantism find their roots, in one way or another, emphasizing the role of justification by faith and God’s unconditional gift of grace. Many of us are familiar with the general story of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the doors of the Schloßkirche, or Castle Church, in Wittenberg. What began as a conflict with the Church over the use of  indulgences to assist people in attaining absolution, not only for themselves but for those who had died, resulted in centuries-long changes and divisions within Christianity that continue to this day. It also began a major shift in theology, emphasizing the ever-present role of God as our foundation as mediated through the Means of Grace, which for Luther are the scripture and the sacraments. The abuses of the Church were causing people to falsely put their hope in what they had to “do” to achieve salvation, straying them from the true guidepost for a life of faith, the Gospel. As we heard Dean Hill say in his sermon last week, Luther risked fracturing the Church apart for the sake of the Gospel.

One of Luther’s driving factors in challenging the church was that people’s souls were on the line. In convincing people that they had to buy indulgences to ensure salvation, the church was misdirecting and misinforming people about how salvation is attained, notably through faith, Sola Fide. Luther’s focus was not to separate the Church into factions, which is what ultimately happened, but to reform the church to a radical return to the Gospel as the guiding principle, Sola Scriptura, by scripture alone. Luther’s theological perspective removed power from human institutions, which are inherently corrupt because they are made by corrupted beings (we are all sinners), and instead emphasized that God is the only true source of power, love, and grace. God’s effort is what saves us, not our own. It is difficult to hear this in a culture that puts so much emphasis on achieving whatever you want in life if you just work hard enough. The Lutheran message of salvation Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, (scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone) squarely places responsibility for our salvation in the hands of God.

In today’s Gospel, we hear a familiar phrase, “You will know the Truth, and the Truth will make you free.” Despite the fact that this line of scripture does not occur in our regular readings, we have heard it, or forms of it, echoed in our society. Hearing this quote out of context may cause us to question “what is the truth?” as some sort of abstract concept, or what are we being made free from? However, in context, Jesus all but tells the disciples and us what the Truth is. In the first half of this sentence Jesus states, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples” then follows it with “you will know the Truth and the Truth will make you free.” Continuing in Jesus’ or God’s word makes one a disciple of God. The Greek word used here is “μενω” meno, which is more than just continuing to follow in Jesus’s teachings. Instead μενω indicates “abiding” in the word – accepting and remaining in relationship with Jesus who is the word. The question here is not “What is the truth?” but rather “Who is the Truth?” Abiding in God’s Word enters us into a transformative relationship with the Divine in which we come to know the Truth by having our lives completely reoriented through the radical love we encounter in Jesus’ death and resurrection. We are made free through our faith, which comes in abiding in God’s word. In Luther’s language, we are justified in by our faith in Jesus Christ, made free from our sin through God’s gift of grace.

When we are set free from sin through God’s grace, we are set free to love and serve one another. One of the most common critiques of Lutheran theology is that it de-emphasizes the role that works play in the life of the Christian. Yes, Lutheran theology does say that faith and not works is what justifies us to God, but the freedom that comes from our faith and trust in God and God’s promises enables us to share love with and be in service to others. Good works flow out of a life grounded in faith. The relationship we have in trusting in the triune God transforms how we think and act in all ways in the world.  The problem with how many of us conceptualize our approach to a life of faith is that we think “God wants me to do that” as the driving factor for the decisions we make. It may very well be that God does want us to do the things we are intending, but we must be aware that we can’t do it alone. It is faith in God that supports us along the way.

Psalm 46 speaks to God’s constant support of God’s people throughout the ages. God is not only our support, but our refuge and our strength. When we fear, when we face uncertainty, God’s presence provides the security to help us continue on our way. In the Psalm, the whole world is in tumult. Natural disasters, political upheavals, and even the notion of change itself are realities that the human community has come to face time and time again, including in this passage. I’m sure many of us can relate to this feeling of chaos. It appears as if almost everything is in upheaval and the world does not feel as ordered or certain as it may have in the past. God is still with us through these times of trial, however. God remains steadfast when everything else is in a state of flux.

Many of us are experiencing fear and trepidation about what the future will hold for our communities, our country, and the world. Turning on the news, looking at the internet, or even hearing the weather report at this point can induce a sense of panic. So much has changed for us in the past year, some definitely for the better, but much that has caused us to feel alienated from the world that we once knew. We do not know what to do in facing such huge societal and global problems such as a continuing pandemic, political division, racism, bigotry, economic upheaval, and increasingly destructive natural disasters due to climate change. These issues are so large and have created so much harm that we are overwhelmed. We come together today as a community of faith to hear the good news of Jesus Christ and lay down these burdens for a while, finding sources of hope and bolstering our faith.

God’s advice to us in these times, according to the Psalmist, is to “Be still and know that I am God.” Be still. Be silent. Have faith. These are things you need to be a follower of God. You may remember Dean Hill’s call for us to seek out the quiet in order to feed our faith in last week’s sermon. “‘Carry out the quiet’ says Dean Hill.  You do not need endless cable TV to have a happy life. The same for email, zoom, texting, techne, all.  Carry out the quiet.  For a good life you do and will need quiet.” When we share in this stillness, this time of reflection with the Divine, we can discover the ways we abide with Jesus. We can hear the still small voice within us, helping us to see the world in a new way. Silence sustains us for action.

Psalm 46 was also the inspiration for Martin Luther’s hymn, A Mighty Fortress, which most will probably identify as “the” Lutheran Hymn. I believe our Music Director might have some more to tell us about “A Mighty Fortress” and how another famous composer, J.S. Bach, interpreted Luther’s original hymn and theology for BWV 80. Scott?

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music:

(Text forthcoming)

The Rev. Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain:

Thank you, Scott. This Reformation Day, we are reminded of all the ways the Church has faced challenges in the past and have the opportunity to envision what hope we can bring to the Church of the future. In coming together today and each Sunday as a community of faith to share in God’s word, including the musical offerings we are about to hear, we are emboldened in our assuredness of our salvation through Jesus Christ. May God guide us in the spirit of this ongoing reformation, awakening, affirming, and strengthening our faith. God is our foundation, and we are constantly renewed and reformed by abiding in God’s Word. We are set free from the bondages of sin by the Truth established for us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s one true Word.  Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain and Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

Sunday
September 12

Finding Divine Sustenance

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

1 Kings 19:48

John 6:35, 4151

Click here to hear just the sermon

Good morning! Can I just say how amazing it is to be here, in front of people, delivering a sermon today? This year has been so difficult, and even though we managed ways to stay connected through the radio and zoom, distanced outdoor in-person services in the freezing cold, and email, nothing compares to the strength and support of physically being together. In the three weeks that we have been back indoors, in person here at Marsh Chapel I have been so happy to see your faces, although masked, and to hear your wonderful voices. Don’t get me wrong, recording your sermon ahead of time has its advantages, like starting over if you mess up at the beginning, but nothing compares to being here, with you, in community praising God. It’s such a blessing on what is a very important day for me – more on that later! 

A few years ago, actually, I think it may have been a decade or more at this point, the candy bar, Snickers, had a commercial campaign that featured Betty White. You may remember this. She was depicted playing a game of touch football with much younger men and ends up getting tackled into a giant mud puddle. When she gets grief from the other players for not playing to her potential, she lashes out at them. And then another woman presumably the partner of the person Betty White is supposed to be depicting, hands her a candy bar and says, “Eat a Snickers.” Betty White then transforms into a younger man who says he’s now feeling much better and goes off to play more football. The tagline was “You’re not you when you’re hungry.Maybe some of us have experienced being so hungry that we end up in a bad mood, sometimes lashing out at others. Your hunger becomes so great that even the smallest inconvenience becomes insurmountable. I’m sure some of us are familiar with the term “hangry” – a portmanteau of the words hungry and angry. As a person who struggles with low blood sugar at times, I certainly know that I have embodied this “hangry” position and I am certainly not myself when I do. 

Earlier this year, there was a meme going around in my clergy friend circle discussing the passage from 1 Kings today. The meme is actually a tweet from Joy Clarkson, a PhD candidate in theology at St. Andrews University and host of the Podcast, “Speaking with Joy”( @joynessthebrave). It stated: 

“Remember that one time in the Bible when Elijah was like “God, I’m so mad! I want to die!” So God said, “Here’s some food. Why don’t you have a nap? So Elijah slept and ate, and decided things weren’t so bad. Never underestimate the power of a snack and a nap.”

Of course, this is an oversimplification of the story, but we get the point, right? Elijah’s story is relatable because we know that feeling. Getting “hangry” or overwhelmed, or even just not acting like ourselves when things are not going the way we planned. We get moody. We argue with others. We hyperbolize and say, “I could just die!” The bottom line is, we just want whatever it is to be over. We’ve all had times when things seem so impossible around us that we want to just throw up our hands at God and say “WHY? WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?” Some of those times may have even come up in the past year, or even the past weeks with the surge of the Delta variant, returning to school or work, and witnessing national and global news that leaves us at a loss for words. Our conversations with God often come in these moments of exasperation as we grasp for clarity.  My friends who shared the meme about Elijah’s breakdown were those who had endured a year of upended plans with their religious communities and faced continued situations of injustice throughout the world. They too were and continue to be frustrated in what they can and cannot do for others to serve them in a way that is does not completely deplete them of their own energy supply. Many of them were reaching a point of burnout 

A snack and a nap certainly are not going to fix all of the world’s problems, but when we have our basic needs met, it is easier to cope with extenuating circumstances. We cannot serve others or ourselves if we are running low on energy. Taking care of our needs can also help us focus on who and what supports us. For my clergy friends, remembering that it is okay and even encouraged by God to take care of themselves to better serve others was much needed. A silly internet meme resulted in a moment of reflection on God’s presence and guidance in maintaining one’s ability to continue the difficult work of seeking out justice in the world. In times of stress, remembering to drink, eat, and sometimes even just breathe can help us find grounding. 

Elijah separates himself from his community to express his frustration and ultimately finds that God continues to support him by providing him with his essential needs so that he can reset and return to his community. He can then go on to continue his important work as a prophet in challenging the actions of King Ahab and the cruelty shown to the people of Israel. God’s constant presence through the care shown to Elijah when he is at his lowest point enables Elijah to remember that God continues to support him, even in his darkest moments. Elijah has physical hunger, yes, but he also has a spiritual hunger that needs to be fulfilled. 

The theme of the sustaining presence of God in the world is carried through in today’s Gospel message. Jesus proclaims to the people, including the religious authorities, that HE is the bread of life and that whoever comes to him will never be hungry. Some may read this as a message meant to exclude, a condemnation of those who are not a part of Jesus’ movement. But, as one commentator put it, this is not a message of condemnation but of commendation. It is an invitation to people to come, taste and see that the Lord is good! Jesus creates a continuum between his Jewish heritage and the new message of what God offers to humanity. The Israelites relied on manna from heaven while they wandered the desert with Moses for 40 years, further establishing their trust in God. This new form of manna from heaven through the bread of life expands God’s covenant with humanity in establishing eternal life. It provides spiritual nourishment to all who come to receive it.  

In our Christian context, we immediately connect Jesus’ claim of being the bread of life for those who hunger and the living waters for those who thirst with our sacraments. Holy Communion allows us to eat and drink as Christ has instructed us, in his remembrance. Sharing together as a community in partaking in the bread and wine physically binds us to the reality of Christ’s love. As a central part of worship, the Lord’s Supper presents an opportunity for us as the congregation to share in the intimate act of eating and drinking together. Temporally and spatially, this act also connects us with the centuries of Christians throughout the world who have shared in this sacrament. Creating community around the table is meaningful because it recognizes the need to be spiritually and physically sustained in order to serve God. 

One thing that I appreciate most about the Lutheran understanding of the Lord’s Supper is the acknowledgement of the mystery that surrounds it. We take Jesus at his word when he states that the bread and the wine are his body and blood. Our faith is bolstered by the fact that we continue to receive this mystery. Even if we believe we are unworthy to accept God’s grace, it is still given to us through the promise found in Holy Communion. Our consciences are eased by the reality that there is nothing we need to do to earn this means of grace from God, but that it is given to us freely.  

Here at Marsh Chapel, last week we had our first experience with Holy Communion together in the same space after 18 months of depravation. Communion did not happen in our traditional way of intinction. We used pre-packaged communion kits rather than receiving the bread and wine from one another. While we may have fumbled to get the plastic wrappers off of our wafers or carefully pulled back the foil on top of our cup of grape juice so not to spill it on our clothes, we still heard the words of institution spoken and received the mystery of the sacrament together. It was still a special moment filled with God’s stated presence here with us, joining us together. Eating and drinking has been something  many of us have missed in these days of isolation and social distancing. Avoiding having a meal around others has been essential to maintaining our physical health in the past year, but finding a way to still partake in this sacrament in a COVID-safe way has brought back spiritual nourishment for us. 

Holy Communion has played a pivotal role in my own sense of vocation and call. Growing up as a pastor’s kid, I only infrequently encountered other ministers in my youth My primary clergy person was also my dad. I witnessed my father celebrating communion almost every week in the churches he served. However, when you’re a PK, your connection with the church can be somewhat challenging. If your pastor is your parent, it’s hard to not see their vocation as just a “job” or really understand what it is that they do. For some PKs, it causes them to develop some uneasiness around considering ministry as a potential vocation. That’s why, when I went off to theology school after college I made it very clear that I was NOT going to be pastor. I figured my studies of religion and theology were enough to feed my spirituality. I had stopped regularly attending church in college and didn’t feel any sort of drive to return even when surrounded by those who were seeking out ministry as their vocation. 

In 2011, things changed. My mother was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that originates in the bone marrow and affects the white blood cells. Fortunately, she was diagnosed early and had access to cutting-edge care at the University of Pennsylvania hospital, which has oncologists who specialize in this type of cancer. The prospect of a loved one, or even yourself, going through cancer treatment is terrifying, however. Watching at a distance as she went through chemo, losing weight and eventually her hair, it was hard to not question: Why? Why was this happening?” Like Elijah yelling at God in his frustration, there were many times when I found myself angry with God. My family trusted the doctors, who were sure that at the very least her disease would be manageable in the future, but nonetheless it was scary in the moment.  

I finally got to visit my mom after she had her largest dose of chemo and her own treated stem cells transplanted into her body, resulting in a 17 day long stay at the hospital, from which she had just been released. My parent’s minister, the minister of the church to which my family belonged while my dad served as an interim minister for many years, came to the house to give her communion. I had never experienced communion at home before (which seems like a silly thing to say in today’s context, when some of us have now taken part in communion services over Zoom). For me, communion was always a full church experience – I connected it with being in front of the altar and surrounded by others. Sure, I knew that my dad would go out and give communion to those who were too sick or homebound, but I never experienced it first-hand, let alone from another minister. My mom, dad, and I sat in their living room as Pastor Sharkey unpacked his communion kit and asked my mom about how she was doing, comforting her in the challenges she now faced in her recovery. He went on to offer us each communion, stating the words of institution and placing the wafers in our hands followed by small cups of wine.  

Although I had heard “The body of Christ, given for you,” “The blood of Christ, shed for you” many, many times before, in that specific moment I felt a connection so much deeper than anything I had ever experienced. I felt spiritually fed. I felt supported by God. I knew that God was there to help us get through this moment. It wasn’t that my experiences in the church prior to this were not spiritual or meaningful, but it helped me to see and understand ministry in a different light. I knew that ministry involved the care of others in the most difficult of times, but I don’t think I ever truly understood what it meant to those who were hurting until I experienced it myself. As someone who has innately sought to help others in whatever jobs I take on (perhaps because of my upbringing) I began to see ministry as truly viable option for my future. When the opportunity to serve as the Lutheran Campus Minister here at BU arose after this experience, I jumped at the chance to enter into the beginning steps of a long process of discernment to pursue becoming a minister of Word and Sacrament.  

Throughout my journey of candidacy, I have continued to encounter moments of God’s sustaining presence, keeping me spiritually fed. Getting to know the ins and outs of Chaplaincy from my colleagues, learning about the experiences of my students, and providing care for others has helped me grow into my vocation. The road has not always been easy, it has certainly been long, and there were times when I had those moments with God questioning why I had to go through what I was going through. I found a community of people who support and care for me, cheering me on as I hit each milestone and encouraging me when things didn’t go as planned. Through it all, I felt God’s presence with me in this community. And now, this afternoon, for the first time ever, I will preside at the table for Holy Communion at my ordination service. I can’t put into words what that moment will mean for me. While, again, it won’t necessarily be the experience I thought I would have because of COVID, being able to help direct the congregation that will gather in this sanctuary to the mystery of God’s grace brings my heart joy. Perhaps someone will also find comfort or strength in the words of institution, being spiritually fed through the bread of life and the living waters. 

God stands with us in our hardest moments. When we yell out in our frustration hoping for something better, God hears us. God’s constant presence reminds us that we are not alone. We gather together in community with one another to find the strength to continue through whatever challenges we might face. Christ invites us to partake in the bread of life to have our hunger and thirst perpetually satisfied. We are physically and spiritually fed through Holy Communion, hearing the Word proclaimed and receiving the body and blood of Christ given for each one of us. We are divinely sustained as a community. As the Psalmist states “Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they who take refuge in God!” Amen. 

-Rev. Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

Sunday
July 18

Finding Rest

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

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At the Boston University School of Theology, most students pursuing a Master of Divinity degree must take a course called “Contextual Education.” This course immerses the student in field education – in a faith-based setting like a church or a nonprofit. Our regular congregation members are familiar with these students. We have had many of them help lead our weekly services over the years and participated in their growth and learning while they were here. One unique thing about this year-long course is that there is a required learning component. Each student, when they develop their learning agreement with their site, must include a Sabbath practice which they will undertake at least weekly. Some choose a traditional spiritual practice, like reciting the daily offices of prayer in the Episcopal tradition; others choose to spend time outdoors, walking mindfully in their surroundings as the seasons change; still others may choose to undergo a true 24-hour sabbath in which they do not engage in schoolwork or take a break from technology.

The point of requiring sabbath as a learning opportunity is to remind students that their vocations will require a large amount of energy expended for others in ways not encountered in a traditional 9 to 5 job. Rest and rejuvenation is an essential part of all of our lives, but for those in helping professions in which handling the emotions and spiritual wellbeing of others is an essential part, care for the self becomes a critical part of maintaining balance and boundaries. I have had the privilege of supervising and mentoring a handful of contextual education students over the years that I have served as University Chaplain. I have found that Sabbath keeping has often been the most challenging assignment for students to remember and adhere to. This is not to say that all students struggle with this aspect – in fact, I’ve had some students who have found the “requirement” sabbath keeping as part of this course to be a natural fit with their Iifestyles. However, for those who struggle with this aspect of their learning, it’s not because they don’t want to take time to slow down and connect with something larger than themselves. Instead, it is usually tied to their feeling that they must be constantly busy or productive, or that the demands of graduate school, an internship, and/or working a job does not afford them the luxury of rest. Instilling this observance of sabbath is an essential part of training those who will go into ministry, but really is applicable to any person in any vocation.

Self-care and work-life balance have become common place buzzwords today. In the events of the past year, many of us have struggled to find moments of rest and replenishment, whether it’s because of the lack of a physical separation from our workspace, an increased workload, an inability to safely travel, or simply the weight of the world’s news that keeps us from finding rest. Some of us may have been able to achieve some semblance of this balance, building in new routines (walks, meditation, time for prayer) into our new schedule. In our own ways we discovered or rediscovered means of stepping away from the difficult challenges faced in the past year. We need a break. We need to recharge. We need a new perspective, a change of scenery, a stop.

Today’s gospel reading begins with Jesus reminding the apostles that maintaining rest is an important part of ministry. You may remember that a few weeks ago in our lectionary readings, Jesus sent the apostles out, two by two, to heal and teach others in the surrounding area. He sent them out without any provisions other than their staff, a tunic, and sandals, with the advice that if they were not welcome, they should just shake it off and go to the next town. The term “apostle” here is not referring necessarily to the “The Twelve Apostles” but rather is a generalized term related to the Greek “apostello” which means “to send out (with a message).” Therefore these are the people Jesus has sent out with a message of healing and repentance, to spread among the people. Apparently the apostles had been very successful in their apostello. Upon returning to Jesus, they were so sought after by the people who heard of their ministry that they had no time to even eat! Jesus directs the apostles that they are to go to a deserted place and rest for a while. The apostles listen to Jesus because he has directed them successfully in their ministry thus far. They have built a relationship of trust in Him and his teachings. He is a successful leader, a compassionate and good Shepherd.

Their rest doesn’t last long, however. Even though they’ve made passage on a boat to go to this secluded place of rest, the people who have heard of Jesus and his apostles gather in crowds and follow them along the shorelines. For me, this description invokes that famous beginning scene of “A Hard Day’s Night” in which the Beatles are trying to hide or outrun groups of teenage fans who are chasing them in hopes of touching or being close to them. In my mind I see people clamoring for Jesus with the group getting larger and larger with each town they encounter. A growing flock of people all driven in the direction of their shepherd. Unlike the Beatles, however, Jesus assesses the situation and decides that the proper thing to do in this situation is not to hide or try to outrun the people. Instead, he forgoes his rest and addresses those in need.

In all of our readings today, we have heard the theme of shepherding over and over again. In Jeremiah, the Lord warns against destructive shepherds who fail to lead the people on a path of righteousness and compares the people of Israel to “Sheep without a Shepherd.” In Psalm 23, we hear the familiar words of how the Lord acts as our shepherd, caring for and protecting us from evil. In the gospel, Mark compares the people on the shoreline with shepherdless sheep, echoing the sentiments of the Jeremiah text that they are in need of care and effective leadership.

Shepherding is one of the oldest professions. In the agrarian nomadic culture of the ancient Israelites, it was well known as an occupation for the poor. Shepherds are not farmers – while they may be tied to a farm eventually for the economic purposes of sheep (shearing and meat production) they are independent in their task of tending and protecting their flock. Being a shepherd is a tough job. It is all consuming at times, especially when lambing season comes. It requires care, fortitude, attention, and an ability to set boundaries.

We are familiar with the imagery of the Good Shepherd. In fact, looking at the back of the chapel as I speak right now, I can see Jesus depicted as the Good Shepherd in the large stained glass window above the balcony. In one hand Jesus holds a shepherd’s staff, outstretching his other hand to the congregation, inviting them in. To the left, a window depicting women and children who gaze upon him, and on the right a mixture of other adults adoring him. “Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep” it states above the images of the people. Jesus is the Good Shepherd because he loves and cares for his flock. We are reminded of the actions of a Good Shepherd in the text of

Psalm 23:

The Lord is my shepherd; I lack for nothing

He makes me lie down in green pastures

He leads me to water where I may rest;

He revives my spirit:

For his name’s sake he guides me in the right paths.

Even were I to walk through a valley of deepest darkness

I should fear no harm, for you are with me,

Your shepherd’s staff and crook afford me comfort.

You spread a table for me in the presence of my enemies;

You have richly anointed my head with oil,

And my cup brims over.

Goodness and love unfailing will follow me

All the days of my life,

And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord throughout the years to come.

The use of the term shepherd fits for the kind of work Jesus does. He provides his sheep with what they need (see the feeding of the 5,000 which is actually contained in the verses omitted from this week’s lectionary reading). He knows the appropriate actions in the appropriate season, including when to rest and when to be active. He shows his care through acts of healing and disregard for human-created laws that interfere with the work of God. He guides and sets boundaries through his teachings. He protects his flock from evil.  Even more than that, he knows how to tend to new flocks of sheep, even if he has never encountered them before.

I see today’s gospel lesson as the story of two flocks. The first is the group of apostles. This is the small flock with whom Jesus has developed extensive relationship. They have learned from him. They trust his words and actions. They have been entrusted by him to carry the power of healing to others and to share his teachings with the wider world with the knowledge that they will continue to follow him and return to him for their continued growth and strength. The second flock are all those people who have heard of Jesus and “recognize” him from what they have been told by others. They probably do not know the full extent of his teachings. They definitely do not know that he is the Son of God. Many of them probably know that he and his group of disciples heal people. That is reason enough for them to get excited and seek him out. Imagine how the stories shared about Jesus and his miracles must have sounded after they had passed from city to city, gaining momentum as his infamy continues. A miracle man who has healed many who were on the verge of death, or had no hope for healing is making himself available to others. No wonder they flocked to see him! These two flocks still need the guidance of Jesus, but their needs are dictated by their current relationship with Jesus. The first flock, Flock A let’s call them, composed of the apostles have different needs than Flock B, the flock of the sick and uninformed.

Flock B consists of those who have great needs. Remember they are the sheep without a shepherd. They have no one to care for them, to guide them. They are literally running themselves ragged trying to find Jesus to solve their problems. If you’ve ever seen sheep without the guidance of a shepherd or a sheep dog, or ineffective shepherding, you may not realize how quickly things can go wrong. Because sheep are a flocking animal, they travel in a large group. This helps naturally protect them from predators, but it also can make it very difficult to stop them once they all start heading in the same direction. Shepherds are effective in drawing boundaries for the sheep to ensure their safety – keeping them in the good grazing areas and protecting them from predators. Without even those basic needs being met, the sheep, while having some natural inclinations for self-preservation, are more likely to find themselves in unsafe conditions. Jesus sees that these people are in danger because they lack the guidance and care of effective leadership. Even though the disciples need rest, Jesus sees that the crises these people are facing is of utmost importance. The members of Flock B also need rest, in the form of existential calming. Rest will come for all. Love must come first.

Flock A is more like a domesticated flock. They have come to know and depend on their shepherd. They have had their basic needs met (well, with the exception of being so busy that they have no time to eat). Jesus recognizes that this flock, who has been consistent, has gone out to serve others, has done their best to serve God, needs a break. One, for obvious reasons of burnout – people cannot keep working efficiently without time away from their job. But secondly, a spiritual life is one of balance. It requires both activity and contemplation. While many of us may see our task as Christians to love and serve others, we must also have opportunities for spiritual refreshment in hearing the Word proclaimed, nourishing ourselves in holy communion, and taking time to connect with our Creator through prayer and meditation. On the flip side, contemplation without action is not a fully realized Christian life either. Faith should lead to good works in service of others. In a cyclical fashion, rest and action, contemplation and service to others, feed each other in maintaining a healthy balance.

The balance of our work and life, our spiritual activity and contemplation, our outwardness and inwardness is something explored by a wide variety of writers, but perhaps none better than the great agrarian poet and essayist and devout Christian, Wendell Berry. Berry, who owns a farm in rural Kentucky, advocates for the slowing down of life, a turn away from consumerism, of reconnecting with nature, of understanding the earth and all of its cycles. As a farmer, Berry has kept his own flock of sheep, although now in diminished numbers due to his age and ability to care for them. Berry has consistently written poems reflecting Sabbath practice mixed with his agrarian lifestyle for over 40 years. One such poem, number IX from 1991 entitled “The Farm” encapsulates the rhythm of farming life through Berry’s poetic lens. In this excerpt from two sections of the poem, Berry highlights the challenges of the daily work of tending sheep and provides reflection on the need for rest and quiet in a secluded place, not unlike the messages we heard in today’s gospel. He writes:

Near winter’s end, your flock

Will bear their lambs, and you

Must be alert, out late

And early at the barn,

To guard against the grief

You cannot help but feel

When any young thing made

For life falters at birth

And dies. Save the best hay

To feed the suckling ewes.

Shelter them in the barn

Until the grass is strong,

Then turn them out to graze

The green hillsides, good pasture

With shade and water close.

Then watch for dogs, whose sport

Will be to kill your sheep

And ruin all your work.

Or old Coyote may

Become your supper guest,

Unasked and without thanks;

He’ll just excerpt a lamb

And dine before you know it.

But don’t because of that,

Make war against the world

And its wild appetites…

 

To rest, go to the woods

Where what is made is made

Without your thought or work.

Sit down; begin the wait

For small trees to grow big,

Feeding on earth and light.

Their good result is song

The winds must bring, that trees

Must wait to sing, and sing

Longer than you can wait.

Soon you must go. The trees,

Your seniors, standing thus,

Acknowledged in your eyes,

Stand as your praise and prayer.

Your rest is in this place

Of what you cannot be

And what you cannot do.

 

But make your land recall,

In workdays of the fields,

The Sabbath of the woods.

We are not all shepherd-less sheep. We have the guidance, love, and care of our Good Shepherd. He has taught us the ways in which we can reach out to others and share the good news of his life and ministry, growing our flock, bringing in those who may be lost or shepherd-less. He sets boundaries for us, reminding us where the good places to rest are and taking care of us when we are most in need through our faith in Him. Just as we must find balance in the social and physical aspects of our lives, experiencing times of activity and times of rest, we must also strive to seek the balance necessary to feed our spiritual lives as well. In Jesus, the Good Shepherd, we can find that rest.

Rest is holy. Rest is sacred. Amen.

Wendell Berry, 1991:XI “The Farm” in A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979 – 1997, Washington, D.C. Counterpoint publishers, 1998. P. 137-138, 147.

-Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

Sunday
June 13

Extraordinary Time

By Marsh Chapel

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Good morning! We are at the beginning of that season that I never really understood as a child which extends all the way through the summer until we reach Advent: Ordinary Time. Growing up as a pastor’s kid, I always thought of this season simply as “the time after Pentecost.” I legitimately did not know that it went by another name. So, imagine my surprise when in my first year of seminary I stumbled across the terminology of “Ordinary Time” when learning the church calendar. How ridiculous, I thought. Who calls it “Ordinary Time”? Well, apparently a lot of people, including the Catholic Church, the Anglican and Episcopal churches, the United Methodist Church, and even my own beloved Lutheran Church. Ordinary time as a moniker just seems so…ordinary. I don’t think it accurately encompasses the journey we travel with Jesus and the disciples, learning about his ministry, his healing, his conflicts, and his connection to the world. The celebration of Pentecost shows us the dramatic effect of the Holy Spirit’s work in the world. This season is not one to merely proclaim as “ordinary”, but it continues to highlight the extraordinary work of the Holy Spirit through the life and ministry of Jesus.

One of the things today’s gospel lesson teaches us about is the importance of relationship in God’s kingdom. We learn about family, conflict, and the important role the Holy Spirit plays in joining us together and transforming us to form strong bonds rooted in God’s power. But to be fair, this story is a little all over the place – Jesus is trying to eat, people say he’s gone out of his mind, the Pharisees accuse him of being in league with demons, Jesus rebukes anyone who rejects the Holy Spirit, and he also emphasizes his relationship with his chosen family in the Holy Spirit over his family of origin. That’s a lot of ground to cover for a story that is only fifteen verses long and otherwise might be a simple story of an ordinary homecoming.

In any normal circumstance, a family would be excited to see their son or brother return after having departed on a journey. However, Jesus’ reputation precedes him. While on his journey he’s proclaimed new teachings about the good news of the Kingdom of God, casted out demons, healed people, invited disciples to follow him, hung out and eaten with the marginalized, broken Sabbath laws, and gained fame among other Galileans who do not know fully who he is but want to do God’s will. People in Galilee and the surrounding area are sharply divided on what Jesus’ words and actions mean in light of established customs and Jewish law. His own family does not understand what he is doing. Remember, the story of Jesus’ life and ministry in Mark does not begin with his birth but rather at his rebirth when he is baptized by John. Jesus’ supernatural actions and challenge to powers that be is not a known entity to his family before he heads out to do his ministry. No angelic announcement foretold who Jesus was and what he was meant to do. In fact, this is the only time that Mary is mentioned in Mark’s gospel – her role in Jesus’ life is greatly diminished in comparison to the other Synoptic writers. Jesus’ family, instead, think he’s gone out of his mind, not conforming with societal and religious norms as they have come to understand them.

I’m certain most of us can relate to that experience of young adulthood when you or your child left home for college or a job and came back home for the first time. I encounter this frequently in my role as a University Chaplain – that first Thanksgiving or winter break at home can be a challenge for many students. They have changed since they went to school – gaining more freedom, learning who they are and what they want to become in a new environment, encountering new people who have different backgrounds and experiences can shift attitudes and a sense of self. Parents may be surprised at this person who arrives home – students may have even done something to cause their parents question whether they have gone out of their mind. The instinct to protect a child is a strong feeling, as is the longing for the person who once was but now who has started to self-differentiate from their family. However, most of the time we adjust; we manage to keep our families together and accept that people grow and change as they get older, but not without some growing pains. These students may have even started to form their own “families” outside of their family of origin – those who support them through difficult times, celebrate in joyful times, and overall, just “get” them. The desire to connect with others and feel a sense of belonging is at the core of our being, and as we grow and develop into adults, our sense of self leads us to create new systems of support and care.

Returning back to the gospel, another group that has certain expectations of who and what Jesus should be also appears in the story at this point. The Pharisees from Jerusalem have also heard about Jesus’ actions around the Galilean countryside and have their own opinions of what is going on. While Jesus’ family might be trying to protect him in his perceived insanity, the Pharisees come with a much bolder accusation: “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” To them, Jesus must be in league with evil forces because he is not following the religious laws they enforce. Jesus is not acting in expected or “ordinary” ways as a Jewish man or even teacher. Jesus rebuts their accusations by pointing out the logical fallacy of their argument – how can Satan cast out Satan? Truly it must take something or someone much stronger and different to “bind up” the strong man. Here, Jesus gives the Pharisees and the crowd an apocalyptic hint of his role in the world – to prevent the work of evil in the world and provide forgiveness.

We may be taken aback at what Jesus says next though. He draws a strict line between who is “in” and “out” in the kingdom of God. The good news is that most people are included in God’s kingdom – sins will be forgiven by a gracious and loving God. But, and this is a huge BUT, there is one sin that cannot be tolerated –blaspheming the Holy Spirit. God will not forgive those who commit this sin. It feels awfully weighty to us as the readers. We have come to expect that God forgives unconditionally. How can we reconcile these two claims? Also, how do we know if we are blaspheming the Holy Spirit if the work of the Holy Spirit is often a mystery to us? Perhaps the best way to think about this statement by Jesus is to place it in context of the Gospel of Mark. Presbyterian pastor James Ayers in his commentary on this passage urges that we see Jesus’ words here as a sort of tether that lets us know that the Holy Spirit is the force that can transform hopelessness into hope and can cause restoration in our lives. The only way that we truly be against God is to actively reject the Holy Spirit’s presence in the world. What we really must be aware of is that the power of the Holy Spirit continues to work on and with us to create our loving relationship with God. Jesus is laying the groundwork for what it means to be a part of God’s family.

With this knowledge about maintaining our relationship with the divine, we turn back to the conflicting realities of Jesus’ closest relationships. When Jesus’ family calls for him to come outside, he claims those he is inside sharing a meal with to be his mother and brothers. Is this a complete rejection of his biological family? Maybe. It is a definitive claim on the importance of the kind of relationship that Jesus calls us to cultivate in our lives. Jesus claims those who are doing the will of God as his siblings. In that moment, it excludes his family because they do not understand who he is and what he is doing.

Jesus wields his power in this narrative. It is not the kind of power that is most recognizable in Jesus’ time or even our own time – economic, political, or even physical – but is instead rooted in love, hope, justice, humility, servanthood, and restoration. In claiming outsiders from the rest of society to be literal insiders as members of God’s family, Jesus upends the expectations of what power should look like. In performing exorcisms and healing people, he restores right order and enables those who have been healed to be a part of society once again. He shows love to those who have been excluded, sees value in human life over the strictures of human laws, and identifies the humanity of those who have been deemed less-than because of their jobs, their status in society, or their physical or mental wellness. He is able to bind up the “strong man” because of his power of love and transformation rather than destruction. Jesus’ power is not rooted in fear or coercion, but in hope and love.

In this past year, many of us have spent a lot of time inside, especially in our homes. We’ve also probably gotten a great deal of quality time with our immediate families, or maybe with our chosen “bubble” of people. These are people that we trust. In the midst of a pandemic, there had to be a certain level of understanding about the appropriate behaviors and interactions for each of the members of our “immediate households” to maintain our health and wellbeing. We became vigilant about who was and wasn’t a close contact, redefining our physical relationship to others by only allowing certain people to share our spaces. Some of us have had time to reconnect with family members in new ways, while others have been physically separated from loved ones for extended periods of time.

Perhaps because we have had more time to think about or spend with our immediate households, we have come to recognize the importance of establishing and maintaining strong relationships with others. In this time of forced isolation from the outside world, we’ve also come to recognize the many ways in which our society is broken. COVID made us acutely aware of economic, racial, and other social inequalities that have been present for the majority of our country’s history, but which we have continually failed to address. In the early days of the pandemic, after our initial shock of having our lives upended, many of us vowed that we would never be able to go back to “normal” again in light of Black Lives Matter protests, socio-economic inequality, and growing divisions in our country. Some of us now had more time to really reflect on what was going on in the world around us and to decide how we were going to be more involved, less dismissive, and seek justice and restoration for others.

Now, in this new phase of the pandemic, where it is certainly not over but is at least on the decline in the United States, we are ready and eager to go back outside into the world. As mask restrictions lift and we begin to reunite with our friends (after, of course, we have been fully vaccinated) it might be easy to slip into our old ways of being. The busy-ness of life might return again and our care and concern for the greater socio-economic issues we were faced with during the pandemic may start fade into the background. We may slip into our own “ordinary” time where things go back to mostly “normal”. We may lose sight of the importance of the relationships we share not only with those in our “bubbles” but with the greater world. Certain aspects of the pandemic will leave their marks on us as we move forward, but how will we consider what this past year has meant to us in how we interact with our families of origin, our families of choice, and the surrounding world around us?

Many of us have a new clarity about the importance of relationships and not taking advantage of the time and opportunities to support and connect with others. Sometimes this kind of recognition can only come after we have lost something important. Dr. Don Saliers, American theologian and Professor Emeritus at the Candler School of Theology as well as father of Emily Saliers of the folk duo the Indigo Girls, summarizes our experience of the relationship of being a part of God’s family as this:

“Living out the form of discipleship Christ bids us follow means a new solidarity with all humanity.  It requires that we learn with him to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice. It asks us to live into the densities of human joy and suffering. It calls us to find ourselves precisely in our willingness to give up our self-absorption.  This is a demanding task, requiring a willingness to follow him into a new solidarity with God’s whole family.”

One may hear echoes of the great theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s claim of the Cost of Discipleship in Dr. Salier’s statement. While God’s family welcomes all, it also calls on us to be willing to serve others with an open heart without letting ourselves and our egos get in the way of justice and righteousness. God’s will, while grounded in love, does not mean that it won’t come without its challenges in enacting it in the world. It means standing up to oppression. It means crying out with those in pain. It means recognizing and responding to the needs of others, even if those needs infringe upon our personal wants. To live authentically into God’s will means being mindful of how our faith informs our actions and allowing that deep inward voice to guide us along the way.

Jesus, in his ministry and his teachings, demonstrates what it means to follow God’s will. The Holy Spirit acts on us to create faith within us and then we continue to strengthen that faith through hearing the Word of God and sharing the sacraments with one another. The Holy Spirit moves in us to bear the good fruit of our faithfulness in service and care for others. It motivates us to seek justice for those who are marginalized, to create wholeness where brokenness haunts many, to acknowledge the humanity of others, and to see how we are inextricably tied together with them. Our faith is in the one who redeems and makes us whole, and thereby we are called to share the power of Christ through our own words and actions.

This is not an ordinary time. These weeks after Pentecost are an extraordinary time to hear the Word and works of God through the body of Christ. Let us live into these “Sundays after Pentecost” with a renewed sense of being siblings of Christ and God’s children. Amen.

-Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

Sunday
April 4

The Story Doesn’t End Here: Easter Sermon on Mark 16:1-8

By Marsh Chapel

An audio recording of this service is not available.

Mark 16:1-8

Christ is Risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

How good it is to be here, in person, worshipping together with all of you for the first time in over a year! Easter has arrived! We gather together in community, new and familiar faces, early this Easter morning to share in the joy of the Holy Spirit at the news of the impossible becoming possible and the glory of our salvation through Jesus Christ, our Lord. We’ve donned our Sunday best, are surrounded by the beauty of the creation, have the sounds of beautiful music from the Marsh Chapel Choir, and feel the exuberant energy of this festival day. We are glad to be together, although distanced and outdoors, to share in worship together. For some of us, including me, it has been a very long time since we have been able to worship in person! We joyfully hear the words of “Christ the Lord is Risen Today!” and shout our “Alleluias,” listening for the good news of grace freely given through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

However, our Gospel reading for today does not seem to match the positive feelings we might have about our service this morning. In fact, I’d go as far to say that it’s somewhat off-putting given the celebratory nature we expect from our Easter service. In Mark’s telling of the resurrection, the oldest of the gospel accounts, we are greeted only with an empty tomb, a man dressed in white, and women who deeply loved Jesus left in stunned silence, too scared to go and share what they have witnessed. Most scholars agree that the original ending of Mark is verse 8, where our gospel reading ends today. There is no triumphant celebration of victory over death in this ending, just stunned silence.

Imagine yourself following along with these three women – Mary Magdelene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome – as they approach the tomb where Jesus had been laid days earlier. These three women had seen the traumatic death of Jesus from afar, having been Jesus’ followers with other women from Jerusalem during Jesus’ ministry (Mk. 15:40-41). They saw him crucified, give up his final cry, and die. They now approach his tomb with trepidation – they could not anoint his body before this point because it was the Sabbath. The violent death Jesus faced at the hands of the authorities does not dissuade them from their task to make sure his body is properly prepared for burial. Instead of fear of being discovered, their biggest concern is that they will not be able to access his tomb because of the large, heavy rock that had been used to seal it. The task seems almost impossible, but they are moved forward by their love, care, and devotion to Jesus in these last moments with his body.

It is no surprise then that the women are shocked when the rock had already been moved away! No one else would have any reason to visit Jesus’ tomb. Who else could have possibly moved away this stone? Not only that, but where is Jesus’ body?! This is not at all what the women expected when they set out to the tomb that early morning. Their worry shifts to alarm as they encounter the young man in white. This young man in white, perhaps an angelic figure, is not identifiable by any of these women, but he knows exactly whom they seek (Jesus of Nazareth), where he has gone (He is not here…he is going to Galilee), and what the women and the disciples (who are not there) are to do now (Go, Tell!). He tries to calm the women: “Do not be alarmed,” he states. But it’s too late. The women, those same women who had been devoted followers of Jesus throughout his ministry are alarmed. Even more than that, their alarm turns to fear and doubt.

Doubt is the antithesis of faith. Faith requires trust. Fear prevents the women from fully putting their trust in the words of the young man in white. He instructs the women, “But go, tell” the disciples of Jesus’ resurrection and plans to meet them in Galilee. The women don’t “go” or “tell.” In placing trust in their own perception of the events surrounding Jesus’ resurrection they falter in their faith in trusting God and Jesus, even though Jesus has expressed previously that he will return to them. Many of us would have the same reaction if placed in a similar situation. The mixture of emotions with the traumatic events which have taken place may have well left us too afraid to say anything to anyone else. In today’s political and social climate, some may relate with feeling too uneasy with our own religious tradition to be bold proclaimers of our faith to others.            We fear judgment of our beliefs or that our experiences of the Divine will not be understood by others who have not shared in them.

Mark’s gospel does not shout the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, but quietly retreats into stunned silence. What a strange way to end the gospel that is supposed to declare the Good News of Jesus Christ. What are we supposed to take away from such an abrupt ending? It would be easy to assume that Mark was mistaken in writing the ending this way – that perhaps the rest of Mark’s gospel was lost and there was a more satisfying ending in which the resurrected Jesus actually appeared to the women and the disciples and told them what to do next. In fact, early Christians were so certain that the ending of Mark must’ve been a mistake that they added in their own set of verses around the 2nd century C.E. to make the story feel more “complete.”

However, most New Testament scholars now recognize that the choice to leave the gospel on a cliffhanger may have been intentional by its writer. The silence of the women opens up the possibility for those reading the text to proclaim the good news.[1] Even though the written word of the gospel ends at verse 8, the story does not end here. You see, Jesus is not just a dead historical figure and the resurrection is not a one-time event. We’ve been saying so all morning – Alleluia, Christ is Risen! IS RISEN! Jesus continues to live and act in the resurrection.

We are a part of this Easter story. The man in white at the tomb speaks to us, just as the Holy Spirit continues to guide us in our faith. As New Testament scholar, Ira Brent Diggers, points out, “Christian discipleship is always Easter ministry.”[2] We continue to experience this Easter story throughout the rest of the year. An empty tomb gives us the opportunity to see how Jesus is and can be present to us in our lives. The good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins is not just that it happened, but that it continues to happen for you (LC V, BoC 469.21-22). We are justified by faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and receive the free gift of the grace of God through our faith. We might have our own moments of doubt or trepidation in claiming or proclaiming our faith, but the Holy Spirit through the Word and sacraments reminds us that we do not have to be afraid, we need only trust in God and God’s promises (LC V, BoC 473.61-63). We may feel lost in knowing what to do next in the face of adversity, but God continues to remain steadfast with us no matter the circumstances, even if the tomb is empty.

Our faith in the promises set forth by God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit bring us together to form the church and to be God’s witness to the world (Ap VII & VIII, BoC 175.13). Faith is a gift to us from God. We do nothing to manufacture it, but instead receive it through the means of grace. God meets us where we are through hearing the scriptures and participating in the sacraments. We grow in faith each time we hear the Word proclaimed, sharing in that moment with others and allowing its messages to touch us personally (Ap IV, BoC 131.67). We encounter Jesus each time we hear the words of institution – “This is my body, given for you…This is my blood, shed for youDo this in remembrance of me…” (LC V, BoC 473.65). When we partake in the Lord’s Supper, it physically binds us to the reality of Jesus’ sacrifice through eating the bread and drinking the wine (AP XXIV, BoC 271.73). We witness God’s choice of us and others each time a new member is brought into our community through Holy Baptism. We feel the Holy Spirit move and inspire us as we join together in Word, sacrament, and song as the church, whether we are physically together or sharing in the Word virtually through radio waves and internet streams. In all of these acts we continue to strengthen our faith in God and the relationships we form with one another in the Body of Christ here and beyond the walls of this church. Faith has the power to be transformative in our lives, opening our hearts and enabling us to be in service to others. The voice of the Holy Spirit invites us to “go, tell” others about the amazing things Christ does for us. An empty tomb is a sign of possibility. The story doesn’t end here. It’s only just beginning. Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

[1] Tucker S. Ferda, “The Ending of Mark and the Faithfulness of God: An Apocalyptic Resolution to Mark 16:8,” Journal of Theological Interpretation, Vol. 13, No. 1, 2019.

[2] Ira Brent Diggers, “April 4, 2021: Commentary on Mark 16:1-8,” Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/resurrection-of-our-lord-2/commentary-on-mark-161-8-7 , accessed April 4, 2021.

-Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students